If Only I Could Hibernate review – Mongolian maths whiz aims to escape biting cold

<span>Escape v loyalty … Ulzii (top) is left to care for his siblings in If Only I Could Hibernate.</span><span>Photograph: Conic Films</span>
Escape v loyalty … Ulzii (top) is left to care for his siblings in If Only I Could Hibernate.Photograph: Conic Films

A valuable debut feature from 34-year-old Mongolian film-maker Zoljargal Purevdash, inspired by her childhood experiences of studying for a life-changing educational scholarship, as well as by the poverty-stricken tented yurt district of the capital Ulaanbaatar where her mother owned a shop and where she saw the customers’ tough lives. In the film, Purevdash has gender-switched her physics-student teen hero to a boy and evidently fictionalised her own school challenges by transplanting them to a family from just this kind of deprived background, battling against hardship and the bitter and terrible cold, yearning to be able to see out the winter by hibernating, like a bear. Unable to afford coal, kids rip up wooden planks from fences and go on illegal “logging” raids into surrounding woodland.

Nonprofessional newcomer Battsooj Uurtsaikh plays Ulzii, a 14-year-old kid living in a yurt with two boisterous siblings and a hardworking mum who may at any moment relapse into alcoholism and depression. Ulzii has an escape route from all this – although Purevdash interestingly shows us that for a 14-year-old it is not perceived as an escape route, but an extra burden of strangeness and specialness. He is brilliant at maths and physics, and his passionate teacher is urging him to go for regional and national competitions with cash prizes and university scholarships.

Of course, this means extra classes, tuition, commitment, taking time away from doing jobs and work which his family needs; it is a bet on a glowing aspirational future in which Ulzii does not quite believe. And things get even worse when his mum falls off the wagon and disappears, leaving Ulzii to care for his siblings on his own. Like Hollywood movies such as Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting from 1997, the film shows the two conflicting forces: the escape impetus and the loyalty impetus, the obvious yearning to get out of a tough situation and the countervailing sense that to do so would mean cutting yourself from family, with a resulting guilt and pain that would probably persist throughout your life. Perhaps the film could have given us a clearer view of the teacher’s inner life and past, but this is still an interestingly downbeat, shrewd drama.

• If Only I Could Hibernate is in UK and Irish cinemas from 19 April.